Thursday, February 26, 2009

Blizzard Beer

Every morning, say 10 am, I tell myself, 'self, tonight is the night you skip the beer and just drink water.' It's only a few hours later that the frustrations of the daily grind on the job force me to cave into the dozens of beers that will be staring me in the face when I arrive at home.

I try, I really do, but I don't feel much guilt over having a drink or two every night; I've gotten more consistent in the last year--no weeknight binge drinking anymore. It's difficult on nights like tonight, when the Gophers lose a winnable road game and I spent two hours trudging through slow traffic and shoveling the heartiest, stickiest snowfall of the season.

And on that note, I wondered, what would be the perfect beer for a blizzard? The initial response, clearly, would be to nurse a deep, warming imperial stout. Something to burn the insides and satisfy the thirsty taste buds. I had several stout options, including Victory's Storm King and Bell's Expedition. But I wasn't in the mood for a stout. Perhaps because I tried my namesake Nils Oscar Imperial Stout Tuesday night and was disappointed. (The second Nils Oscar beer disappointment I've had with no successes). I decided a stout was not the perfect blizzard beer.

I fingered through the basement options: some Surlys, Tyranenas, New Glaruses; nothing that felt right for the moment. Finally, I settled on a mini vertical of Sierra Nevada Bigfoots. I picked up '07 and '08 bottles when I visited Dennis Brothers in Cottage Grove in early January, and had been saving them for no particular reason. A vertical tasting means comparing the same beer from different years to see how the flavors have developed over time. Not all beers should be tasted this way. Don't save your Bud Lights for years to see how the flavors mature. But for a complex, stiff beer such as the Bigfoot can stand up to a few years of aging.

This was the first time I'd had Bigfoot in a bottle; I first had it on tap at the Muddy Pig in early 2008, when I gave it 4.5 stars. I think my love of barleywines peaked in those winter months, because I remember thinking Southern Tier's BackBurner was the best beer I'd ever had, and when I tried it a few months later I thought my initial five-star rating was much too high.

With that said, it's hard to argue with a barleywine during a wintery blizzard. It's a full beer in the mouth, leaving bold flavors behind without completely drying you out, and giving you enough alcohol burn to move you in a promising direction. Most might argue, and I would agree, that it doesn't give you the swig-to-swig satisfaction that an imperial stout does, but the flavors are prominent enough to make it its own course.

As for this blizzard, the Bigfoot delivered. It had a more bitter finish than I remembered, but when I checked my original notes from March 11, 2008, I found: "Alcohol is present, but taste is dominated by bitter, bitter hops."

The 2008: Supremely rich, with as full of a mouthfeel as you're going to get from a beer. I doesn't disappear down your throat, it stays awhile. The taste is nutty, strong and creamy, but with just the right amount of offsetting crispness. The finish is, again, quite bitter and dry. Many people cite this beer as one to cellar and save for a few years, but I, after having this one, think I might find it hard to do so.

The 2007: In fact, better than the 2008. Which leads me to believe that the longer you let this one ride, the better. Has the thick caramel coating that the 2008 had, but the flavor lasts incredibly long. I ate half a raw tomato in between gulps of this one, and I still couldn't shake the massive flavor. The alcohol is more present in the '07, which I don't mind, as it burned my throat quite pleasantly on this most wintery night. The lacing (foam that sticks to the side of the glass) is pronounced. It was nearly crust by the time I finished the brew. Lacing adds another aspect to the enjoyability of a beer, as you get to see the progress you've made from swallow to swallow as you make your way down the glass. Just another reason why it's crucial that beer be consumed from a glass (the correct glass) and not its original container.

Barleywines, as I'm coming to realize, are a style of beer that I like while I'm drinking them, but in the hours after the tasting, the beer settles in, and I realize that they should be judged not only while they're being chugged, but for hours after. These Bigfoots eased the pain of knowing another shovel was on the Friday morning horizon. Maybe I'll make it a tradition: keep a couple Sierra Nevada Bigfoots in the basement, and when radar says 5+ inches of snow, have them at the ready.

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